We might say that Gretchen Primack was born at the right time – the right time for readers of poetry as well as for herself as poet. The rise of internet communities that crave readable and issue-oriented poetry has transgressed boundaries that formerly defined poetry schools by stylistics, movements, gender and race. A devoted and growing readership of poets, yes, but also readers new to poetry, has allowed Primack to write the poetry dedicated to the subjects she is passionate about. Her 2013 collection, Kind, protested the slaughterhouses and factory meat farms of a carnivorous society; it brought her television appearances, huge audiences, and a fourth printing (a feat generally attained by only those poets who appeal to general audiences: Mary Oliver, Anne Carson, Billy Collins, etc.). Her new book, Visiting Days (Willow Books) – persona poems written from the perspectives of captives in the prison industrial complex — is garnering even more attention. Which is not to imply that Primack is particularly interested in fame or in worldly success. Rather, she wants to get the word out, to raise her voice. Following in the activist tradition of such poets as Audre Lorde, Etheridge Knight, Lucille Clifton, and Muriel Rukeyser, she models civic engagement as well as artistry. Randall Horton, her editor at Willow Books, and a poet famous for, among other things, writing about his own experience of incarceration, describes Primack as “a poet who takes the task of poeting seriously.”
The poems in Visiting Days describe men in solitary confinement, men working on assembly lines in the bowels of a prison, men endlessly folding sheets in the laundry (“Sisyphus knows this room…”), as well as the women who come, filled with love and dread in equal measure, on visiting day:
There was a jumble
of high chairs in that corner when I got here, now just one
facing the wall, the wall an under-the-sea mural, all of us fish
in air. The choking poster rolls its eyes above the Bible table.
Now the men come through, one of them you, and check in
at the guard’s double chin, like everyone, like always,
and like always for a moment I can’t look up.
-Ingrid (Visiting Room)
The world “Inside” is vividly imagined and observed in these poems. Primack’s years teaching creative writing and composition in prisons and jails give these poems a vivid veracity. As Horton puts it in his thoughtful introduction to Visiting Days, “…people from inside have laid eyes on this manuscript, and each one was awed that someone not of their world took the time to understand their plight in a way that rendered them human.”
What makes Primack’s readings electrifying is her deep identification with the people and animals she describes – one could even say “embodies” in her poetry. An abhorrence of the American worship of personal comfort over communal responsibility informs her books. “I don’t want to hurt things,” is how she puts it, and her poetry is as simple and as complicated as that. Which is not to say that her poems are never allowed to get away from their didactic intentions. She has internalized Robert Frost’s aphorism: “No surprise for the reader, no surprise for the writer.” In Visiting Days, the surprise is less that a white woman, a middle class product of Oberlin and Sarah Lawrence Colleges, could write these poems, but rather that they are so poignantly believable. As poet Joseph Ross put it, “Where prisons destroy, these poems ignite the fire that poetry tends: the burn that makes us human.”
This interview was conducted soon after Primack first reading from Visiting Days to enthusiastic patrons of The Golden Notebook, the independent bookshop where she works part-time, in Woodstock, New York.
CB: Describe your process. What’s the step-by-step for you of putting together a collection of poetry? Do you get inspired and work night and day for weeks? Do you work a little bit along for years, slowly accumulating enough poems?
GP: I’m not a disciplined writer, though I wish I were. So the easiest way for poems to come is for me to have an overarching project. That way I’m thinking about moving a project forward, rather than pulling lines and poems out of the air. The poems in Kind—which explores the dynamics between humans and other animals—came together over the course of about two years as I thought about what aspects of those dynamics I wanted to explore. Visiting Days took a bit longer, but there was the same idea: What do I want to communicate about prisons based on my experiences within their walls? How can each poem contribute to that?
CB: Talk about how you structure your books – how do you map out the progression of poems?
GP: Only one of my books had an obvious progression, my most personal book, Doris’ Red Spaces. That one is more or less chronological. The other two, Kind and Visiting Days, have less obvious structures. Because they are each themed, the whole book is itself a structure. In the case of Visiting Days, I literally laid the poems out on a floor to find the right order, but the order I wanted had to do with diversity—almost an anti-flow—that could mimic the randomness of the prison environment. In other words, a poem by a mentally ill man in solitary confinement (which came first? we have to wonder) could be right next to a poem of a man working in the prison mattress shop, and the next poem might be about the joy of drawing a portrait in charcoal. Because that’s how it is in prison, of course—you have no control over who you are interacting with or alongside, and the structure of the book mimics that.
CB: Please describe the research you did for this book. Did you interview people? Visit certain places? Conduct correspondence with inmates or former students? Or was it primarily born of personal experience and observation?
GP: For the first six years I worked in prison, people would ask me if I was writing about it. I wasn’t. It felt too close, and I wasn’t there for material. But then I took a break from the work, and I felt almost compelled to write about it. (I missed working there and was in touch with many people who’d been released and had become friends, and it was as if the issues and memories combined to make the words flow.) So a lot of my “research” or “observation” was unwitting—years of engaging in a space of incarceration. Along with talking a lot with my incarcerated and formerly incarcerated friends, formally about their stories or less formally the way friends do, I read a lot of poetry and memoirs by people who had been incarcerated, and a few books by other outsiders who had experience working in prisons and jails.
CB: What are you working on now?
GP: Absolutely nothing! I’d like the muse to come visit, but she’s off drinking a beer. It’s so much work, though, putting a new book like this one into the world—a job in itself—so I can be patient a little longer.
CB: I’ve had the opportunity to hear you read a number of times and you seem really comfortable in front of people, and to really enjoy sharing your poetry with the audience. Are you actually enjoying giving readings as much as it seems you are?
GP: I love giving readings. I like the fact that I can put the poems in context, for one thing, and there’s always a fair bit of patter in my presentations. And I love Q & A to make things even clearer (and because I love a lively discussion). But I also enjoy the process of reading aloud, and I feel very comfortable in front of a room…maybe all those years of teaching, or high school theater roles, or…?
CB: How did you begin writing poetry? When did you become serious about writing?
GP: I wrote poems as a kid and teen, but I wasn’t serious about writing then—though I was serious about reading. In my senior year of college, I took a contemporary American poetry class from the poet Bruce Beasley. I enjoyed Bruce’s teaching so much that I asked him to look at some of my contemporary American poems. They were just awful, really dreadful, but he was so kind and encouraging that he motivated me to continue. So wherever I lived, I’d find an evening poetry workshop. Eventually I took one at NYU with the poet Ruth Danon, and she urged me to go to grad school. She helped me push poetry to a more central place in my life, right alongside the activism that suffused my day jobs. Those two elements—poetry and activism—dovetailing, as they do in Kind and Visiting Days, feels very natural and satisfying.
CB: What do you see as the most important message of Visiting Days? What kind of response do you want from your readers?
GP: I want to counter myths. The first myth is that everyone behind bars is the same, when of course it’s a collection of living beings every bit as individual as any other group. More myths: that everyone incarcerated is a monster; that justice is being served by each unique person’s placement there; that incarcerated people would never be productive/positive members of society; that they don’t wish to grow and change; that they don’t follow what’s going on in the world beyond the prison walls.
We like to believe that anyone we subjugate, human or non-human, is part of a nameless, faceless group that deserves what it gets. That lets us be cruel and lazy. It’s terribly destructive. It makes it easier for us to continue ineffective, inefficient, oppressive systems.
CB: Do you feel you are part of a contemporary poetic community?
GP: Communities plural, maybe. I feel community with poets who have political/social content and no interest in posturing or ego. I’ve found a lot of people like that through Split This Rock, the marvelous biennial festival that brings poets together in DC to celebrate “poetry of provocation and witness.” So that feels like a community of people spread out and coming together once every two years. Then there’s people who I live relatively close to and feel a poetic kinship with who also have no interest in posturing or ego. I wouldn’t mind having a more formal community—for instance, a writing group—but it’s wonderful to know that there are writers out there I admire and feel close to.
CB: Tell us about your upbringing – did you learn anything from your parents or the places you visited/lived as a child that shaped your vision today? As an artist? As a citizen of the US or of the world?
GP: I grew up in DC, which gave me a sense of citizenship, and traveled a great deal internationally as a child, including a two-year stint in Uganda when I was very young. My parents were politically active, community-oriented, and curious about the world. I think all of this contributed to an understanding that I was not the center of anything but rather a tiny person in a large world. As a result, I don’t want to spend a lot of time staring at my navel, and I don’t connect to navel-gaze-y art or people very well.
CB: What do you do when you’re not writing? What are your enthusiasms?
GP: I love being a vegan activist, I love cooking, I love eating, I love working at an indie bookstore, I love teaching, I love wandering woods, I love reading, I love being with people and animals I love.
CB: Why have you settled in the Hudson Valley of New York?
GP: I was living in Brooklyn in the 90s and went to visit a friend in the Hudson Valley, and that was that. It’s mostly ineffable, but the combination of low mountains, streams, trees, and ex-pat city folk is magical. I can ramble in the woods and go out for a tempeh sandwich and plunge into a pristine swimming hole and see an indie movie in one afternoon. And I’m close enough to dip into Manhattan to hear PFunk that same night. Okay, I’m too old to want to have a day like that anymore, but I could.
CB: What kinds of teaching do you do? Who are your students?
GP: I generally teach college-level writing at maximum-security men’s prisons. But currently I’m teaching an NEA-funded poetry workshop separate from the college. I have taught a lot of academic writing and a little poetry and of late I have been teaching creative writing, either multi-genre or poetry, and that’s what I’d like to keep doing. What I teach isn’t mandatory, so everyone who signs up is self-motivated, and that shows in the quality of their effort and work and maturity.
CB: How do you think your new collection follows up on themes/issues developed in your previous books?
GP: I’m interested in exposing skewed power dynamics and the abuse they engender. In Kind, I explored the dynamic between humans and (other) animals, and the danger of human oppression of other beings. When we choose to see other sentient beings as faceless masses, weaker than ourselves and unworthy of respect, it’s easy to exploit them—and cause untold suffering and destruction. Visiting Days looks at skewed power dynamics, as well — this time between groups of human beings.
CB: Did you have a hand in the arresting (sorry!) design of your cover?
GP: I had a specific idea of how I wanted it to look, and the photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein and design by Nancy Leonard made that picture real. I wanted to show the part of a New York State prison uniform that displays the DIN—prison identification number—and at the same time covers one’s heart. And I wanted it to be an accurate color because I mention that particular green several times in the book.
CB: Was it difficult for you – as a white woman – to allow yourself to write persona poems from the perspective of incarcerated African American men? What was hardest about this? Easiest?
GP: The first minute I put pen to paper for this project, I began thinking about the license to write poems like these. I hope anyone writing across race, gender, identity, and/or experience would. It is a challenge to do it right. Several things made it feel possible here: One, my years of experience in prisons; two, input from incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people; and three, the fact that I created an imaginary world. Real people can, of course, speak for themselves. This collection is inspired by many people I have known, but it doesn’t speak for them. The book owes a lot to fiction and theater, and people are less surprised to see novelists or playwrights writing characters different than the author. Still, in any genre, that should be interrogated and taken to task when done insensitively. I do think that with humility, respect, research, experience, critique from represented groups, and attention to craft, it can be done well. I’m happy to say that I’ve gotten positive feedback from people close to this subject—incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and their family members.
CB: Tell us about your publisher and editors.
GP: This relates to the previous question. One of the people I reached out to for critique on the manuscript is the poet Randall Horton, who is formerly incarcerated. I specifically asked Randall to tell me whether I as a white woman who has never been incarcerated was out of line in writing this, and I knew he would be honest with me. After he read it he called me and said, “You got it right.” Randall is the poetry editor of Willow Books, and he told me that Willow was interested in publishing the collection. This was a surprise because Willow was created to publish writers of color. But Randall and the publisher, Heather Buchanan, felt that the issues explored here made sense vis a vis what they are trying to do at the press. I’m grateful to be part of Willow, and to have had Randall as an editor.
Gretchen Primack is the author of Visiting Days (Willow Books 2019), set in a maximum-security men’s prison, as well as two other poetry collections: Kind (Post-Traumatic Press)and Doris’ Red Spaces (Mayapple Press). She also co-wrote, with Jenny Brown, The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals (Penguin Avery). Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner,FIELD, Ploughshares, Poet Lore, and other journals. Primack has administrated and taught with college programs in prison for many years, and moonlights at an indie bookstore in Woodstock, NY. Learn more at gretchenprimack.com.
Celia Bland’s third collection of poetry, Cherokee Road Kill, is set in the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina. The title poem received the 2015 Raynes Prize, and the book was reviewed in The Georgia Review, Blackbird and Rain Taxi. Her essay on the work of artist Colleen Randall will appear in the exhibition catalogue for “In the Midst of Something Splendid” at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College in 2020. She is co-editor with Martha Collins of Jane Cooper: A Radiance of Attention (U. of Michigan, 2019). She teaches at Bard College.